BWW Review: THE WOMAN IN BLACK, Nuffield Southampton Theatres
There are possibly no four words more chilling to the avid theatre-goer than The Woman in Black.
Having taken the West End by storm, Stephen Mallatratt's adaptation of Susan Hill's classic ghost story is now haunting theatres around the UK on its tour, after celebrating its thirtieth birthday this year.
Since the very first performance of this particular production in 1989, The Woman in Black has revelled in rave reviews and praise a-plenty. Presented by PW Productions Ltd, and directed by Robin Herford, audiences across the country are now able to enjoy the show in regional venues, including Nuffield Southampton Theatres.
The Woman in Black has its origins as a gothic-style horror novel by author Susan Hill. Set in Edwardian England, it tells the tale of Arthur Kipps: a tormented soul who recounts his terrifying encounter with a ghost in a small town he visited a number of decades previously. The ghost and its origins are slowly revealed, and the terrible consequences of its sightings are realised.
In this theatrical adaptation, Mallatratt cleverly retells Arthur Kipps's story through a play within a play. The opening scenes show an aged Kipps employing The Actor (Daniel Easton) to help him exorcise the ghosts of his past. He is, we discover, a poor and reluctant actor initially, but the pair slip from shaky rehearsal into a full-blown performance which brings this sinister story to life. The bare bones of a narrated tale transform into a chilling experience which ultimately culminates in an ending that almost causes the heart to stop.
Having just two actors on stage throughout the whole production would be a risk if the performances were anything but captivating. Fortunately, this tiny cast is one of immense talent.
Robert Goodale is marvellous as Arthur Kipps: he transfigures from a bumbling, uncertain man into a multitude of different characters who he once encountered on his visit to the town of Crythin Gifford and, ultimately, Eel Marsh House. Suddenly, he is the kind stranger, the jovial landlord, and the shaken local - each one is as believable as the next.
Arthur Kipps's story is also brought to life by Daniel Easton's The Actor, who takes on the role of the protagonist in a bid to help rid Kipps of his demons. In doing so, he puts himself in peril; and not just through the encounters he reimagines. His characters consume him: Daniel Easton is indistinguishable from The Actor, as much as The Actor is indistinguishable from a young Arthur Kipps.
It's a testament to the performances of both Easton and Goodale that the entire audience, boisterous school children included, are hooked on each and every word. With expanses of descriptive and evocative speech, it would be easy for attention to waver. However, this is spellbinding storytelling at its finest, with as much told by the expressions and intonations of the cast as the set and the stage direction.
In this show, it is what is absent which adds so much to the atmosphere. This production makes full use of the power of silence and darkness to add to the overall tense and sinister ambience, and it plays upon the unknown to great effect.
The staging is, initially, simple. Designed by Michael Holt, we are met with a sparse space which is ready to be transformed by the cast. The Actor prompts Kipps to use his imagination just as the audience is prompted to use theirs: the hamper is a horse and cart, and a busy London street can be created with a simple noise recording and a little inventiveness.
There is also, later on, clever use of lighting and shadow (designed by Kevin Sleep), curtains and some larger props, but this again relies on very little in the way of complex technology, and more on the power of the human mind.
The sound (designed by Sebastian Frost), is uncomplicated too, and very effective. After The Actor introduces Kipps to sound effects, these are employed throughout the production, once again encouraging the audience to use their senses to fill in any gaps and to flesh out this simple tale, just as one would around a campfire on a dark and dreary night.
Indeed, the power of the production is placed in our hands. Not only is the audience able to conjure up offices, trains, and foggy causeways, but we communally create tension and suspense through the anticipation of the spectre, and the prospect of a ghostly sighting. There is no need to build anxiety with music when the silence of a barely breathing auditorium of people are doing the job on their own.
Of course, the reputation of The Woman in Black precedes it. With tales of terror from friends and reviewers, the expectations for a night of thrills and chills are high. Rumours of ghostly apparitions in the aisles and 'spooktacular' stage tricks raise the bar; but does this production live up to its notoriety?
While the resulting performance is indeed eerie, it is not quite as horrifying as one may expect. A little of the famed audience interaction seems to be missing: perhaps some elements are more effective in smaller, more intimate locations. However, despite falling a little short of inducing screams and nightmares, it still has the entire audience gripped and gasping. With spooky sightings, shocks and the suggestion of being watched, it is certainly a gothic gem; but some potential theatre-goers may be relieved to hear that it stops short of absolute terror.
This production of The Woman in Black is more spooky and creepy than outright terrifying. It is not the stuff of nightmares, but it plays effectively on our age-old fears of haunted houses, ghosts and ghouls, and curses that latch on for life.
There are no fancy special effects in this show; no outlandish technology, or complex storylines that confuse and bamboozle. It's a classic ghost story on stage; the kind regaled around a fire, or with torches held beneath the chin, beautifully translated from book to boards.
The combination of simple staging and a minimal yet potent cast, blended with tension, silence and an abundance of shadows, makes for an experience that keeps the audience at the edge of their seats and peeping through their fingers for the entire two hours.
The Woman in Black is a chilling treat that celebrates and realises the true power of imagination, fear and old-fashioned, spooky storytelling.
Thrill-seeking theatre lovers will delight in this spectral spectacle; indeed, one of the few things scarier than the show itself is the idea of missing out on seeing it for yourself.
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton